THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

Clearing the tunnel vision

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / July 13, 2011

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I’m driving through the Central Artery tunnel yesterday, peering toward a ceiling so pockmarked it looks like it’s a century old, gazing at walls that leak ocean water, eyeing light fixtures that are known to fall down, and one simple question keeps rattling around my nervous brain.

Who can you trust anymore?

Unfortunately, not Jeff Mullan, the secretary of transportation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a famously capable man with what used to be a stellar reputation for honesty and openness. And to be clear, the fact that the project is quickly becoming a corroding sieve is not his fault; he didn’t have his stripes when it was built. But while Mullan may not be responsible for the quality of construction, he is every inch accountable for the recent flow of public misinformation, and in that regard, he has fallen woefully short.

You see, after a 110-pound fluorescent light crashed to the tunnel floor in February, Mullan lied by omission about what he knew and when he knew it. He soft-pedaled the severity of the problem and exaggerated the efforts to address it. He still hasn’t given a straight - or at least palatable - answer about why it took five weeks to let the public know there were serious and immediate dangers in the tunnels.

All of this was detailed in a “Hey Mabel’’ of a story in the Sunday Globe, which used internal Transportation Department e-mails, other various documents, and an interview with the state’s head transportation engineer to reveal a lax response to an urgent problem. Ultimately, Mullan’s solution was to fire a highway administrator for supposedly keeping him in the dark, while leaving in place his longtime associate Helmut Ernst, the head engineer who could have and should have shared the news. Where I come from, that’s called scapegoating, and it’s a profoundly undesirable trait.

The upshot: When Mullan declares, “The tunnels are safe,’’ as he did on a government website earlier this week, there are precious few reasons to believe him.

And that’s the real problem. These are not abstract issues. They are not hypothetical questions. The walls and ceiling of the Central Artery really do leak. A ceiling panel really did collapse and kill a woman in 2006. The 110-pound light actually did fall on the roadway on Feb. 8. The only difference between the light and the panel is someone happened to be driving under the panel. And thousands of other fasteners on dozens of additional lights were found to be corroded. If you get stuck in traffic down there, I would recommend closing your sunroof.

In this situation, there is no room for omission. There’s no room for obfuscation. There’s no room for exaggeration. We are paying a multibillion-dollar fortune in tolls and taxes for a project that, while magnificent in scale and scope, has a habit of letting people down. Anything but the absolute truth, told clearly, directly, and in real time, is not enough.

Which brings us to Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts and the one with ultimate responsibility and authority over the project, even when he doesn’t act like it. Remember last winter, when the governor was basically firing anyone who looked at him the wrong way? When it comes to Mullan, his Milton neighbor, he’s kept everything holstered.

Here’s Patrick’s problem: He’s gone through transportation secretaries like the Kardashian sisters go through boyfriends. His first two were disasters, and in Mullan, Patrick thought he was getting the real deal, a no-nonsense manager with an everyman sensibility and ground-up knowledge of a complex agency. For a while, he was. Believe me when I tell you, when Mullan is good, he is excellent.

But when the light hit the floor, everything changed. Mullan floundered. Patrick kept a safe distance. And the driving public was left where it’s always been with the Big Dig, which is watching for falling objects from above.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com